Black Moses: Can You Dig It?

Why, yes, I can ... and you can too with a click below.

OK, I'll admit there's a question here. Why listen to a 2 CD compilation of Isaac Hayes's music? No, not because he provided the voice of the Chef on South Park. And no, not because of the "Theme From 'Shaft'," which--while a great song--is more representative of the film's lead character than of Hayes's music catalog.

The reasons I know of to listen to Isaac Hayes start off with his backing band in the early 1970s: the Bar-Kays. The house band for Stax-Volt Records in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Bar-Kays provided backing for not only Hayes, but also Albert King, Rufus Thomas and the Staple Singers, among others (earlier in the '60s, they were Otis Redding's backup band). The Bar-Kays frequently steal the show from Hayes on his early albums, churning out some of the tightest and funkiest grooves ever put on vinyl as they burn through the lengthy instrumental passages of Hayes's epic soul music. The driving piano and bass-anchored jam sessions the Bar-Kays perform on these albums offset big string arrangements that would be unbearably sappy on their own. Hayes skillfully arranges these seemingly disparate elements, making them complimentary parts of a whole rather than bizarre juxtapositions or unnecessary adornment. In fact, his string arrangements frequently have a strong lyrical quality to them all on their own, and greatly add to the emotional impact of his music. The strings seem to lift the deep grooves the Bar-Kays are pounding out up into the stars, adding a grandeur and sweep funk music often lacks.

Another reason to give Hayes a serious listen is that he began his career as a professional songwriter, and as such, commands a vast and detailed knowledge of popular music ... and he knows his way around a hook. Working with David Porter at Stax records, Hayes co-wrote such classics as "Soul Man" and "Hold On, I'm Comin'" for Sam and Dave, as well as hits performed by Carla Thomas and Johnnie Taylor. Some of his originals are absolutely unforgettable and influential songs, with "Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic" later becoming the basis of Public Enemy's "Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos," the minor-key, slightly dissonant piano line and propulsive bass of the original almost unchanged by the samplers of PE's Bomb Squad. The horn charts of "Do Your Thing" are quintessential '70s (and reminiscent of cop show theme songs from the period), while the tune's signature delay-enhanced, warbling guitar riff pulls you along from note to note.

Finally, Hayes's work in the 1970s not only helped lay the groundwork for what became disco and rap, but beginning with his second LP release (Hot Buttered Soul from 1969), Hayes also redefined what a soul album might contain. Rather than collections of short, three minute long hit singles, Hayes's records collect songs stretching out well over ten minutes in duration. His soundtrack to "Shaft" may be best known for the title theme, but "Do Your Thing" (a significant RnB hit at the time) grinds on for a truly excessive 19 minutes. Hayes also redefined the image of the soul singer, with his bald head and bare chest adorned with a fat gold chain over a decade before hip hop found similar imagery indispensable. Such imagery, combined with controversial album titles like Black Moses, made Hayes a powerful exponent of black pride.  [PCPL has quite a few copies of Black Moses, so even if you can't get your hands on The Ultimate Isaac Hayes, just click on the image at the bottom of the page and you can get a taste of one of his early classics.]

Over the course of the 1970s Hayes also offered several performances of seemingly unlikely covers of songs by other artists, ranging from then-recent pop/rock hits to easy listening classics. They are all skillfully reinterpreted and completely transformed by Hayes and his band. These include a fifteen-minute song cycle built around the Burt Bacharach/Hal David chestnut "You've Lost That Loving Feeling," and a version of George Harrison's "Something" which clocks in at over ten minutes. Hayes's cover of Jimmy Webb's "By The Time I Get To Phoenix" (from Hot Buttered Soul) opens with a lengthy spoken monologue placed over a muted, almost cocktail-hour instrumental backing before rising into a grand statement of orchestral soul music. Hayes is often able to convincingly embody the protagonist of each song, such that I still feel as if Hayes himself is telling me of his wife's serial infidelity which eventually led him to hit the highway, driving from LA to his home in Memphis, wondering if his wife will wonder what happened to her man "By The Time I Get To Phoenix." In other words, no one else did soul music quite the way Hayes did.

One of the most remarkable things about Hayes's early records is that they were tremendously successful in the RnB market between 1969-1973. While disco's explosive popularity in the late 1970s sank many an RnB act who were unable (or unwilling) to keep up with the new groove, Hayes actually rode disco back out of a mid-1970s lull to pick up a number of hits with a new, broader audience. Rap artists like Chuck D later championed their icon of '70s soul, even collaborating with Hayes on his 1995 release Branded. Then, of course, there was South Park.

The Ultimate Isaac Hayes suffers from an obvious problem: how does one compile a selection of 10-20 minute songs without running out of space after including just a few titles? Compilations of Hayes's music have been released by varying record companies since the mid '70s, and they all seem plagued by the question of which songs to include in full-length form and which to present as single edits. This collection tries to have things both ways, including long versions of "Walk On By" and "I Stand Accused," while opting for edited mixes of "By The Time I Get To Phoenix," "Do Your Thing" and others. The effect of these edits is always a bit odd to me: while you get the essence of the track--funky Bar-Kays grooves, artful string arrangements, Hayes and all--stripping away the instrumental jams does harm to the backing band's contributions and makes Hayes seem more melodramatic than he does when he gets to emote for a good long while. This record does however have the virtue of including material from his entire career, from "Phoenix" to the Chef.

You can reserve a copy of the Ultimate Isaac Hayes from PCPL by clicking on the link below:

Ultimate Isaac Hayes

Or, you can reserve a copy of Black Moses from PCPL by clicking on the image here:

Black Moses